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Training camp roundtable: The most compelling Falcons summer story lines

The monthly staff discussion makes its return diving into how the training camp period could be most beneficial in getting clarity about Arthur Smith’s squad heading into the season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

For the first time in several years, there is a legitimate buzz about the Atlanta Falcons going into training camp. The talk of another year of rebuilding is over. The plan of hoping young players emerge to be possibly competitive doesn’t exist anymore.

This is a team built to compete to win a favorable division. While expectations still need to be managed for a mostly young squad, there is plenty of reason to believe this team is ready to produce a winning record, one putting them in the top tier of the NFC.

Although they can’t be expected to be ready to challenge the likes of Philadelphia and San Francisco, the roster is built to win games with a forward-thinking coaching staff filled with clever strategies and effective game plans. Kevin Knight joins me for the return of The Falcoholic Roundtable, which has become a staple on this platform over the past two years. It’s time to dissect the most pressing topics surrounding one of the NFL’s trendy, fun teams.

What would you like to see the coaching staff prioritize in helping Desmond Ridder prepare to be the opening-day starter?

Allen Strk: Four games will never be a suitable sample size to assess a rookie. Considering two of those games were in daunting environments in New Orleans and Baltimore against outstanding defenses, and the other two were against a lost Arizona team and second-string Tampa Bay unit, it’s hard to put much credence in what Ridder produced on the field. Young quarterbacks will always be working on building strong relationships with skill position players and offensive linemen. Finding comfort with the playbook and consistently working on footwork are other main aspects of what can be worked on in training camp for Ridder and the coaching staff.

What could be greatly beneficial is putting a stronger emphasis on completing intermediate passes. Ridder’s accuracy from 10 to 19 yards was inconsistent in college, so it wasn’t surprising to see him struggle to make those throws at times against NFL defenses. Processing coverage alignments and developing a better feel of pressure is difficult to accomplish during training camp practices.

What the coaching staff can do is work relentlessly with Ridder to make passing in intermediate areas feel more automatic. In an offense with big pass catchers and prolific weapons, they can’t afford to have him miss opportunities to move the chains and create explosive plays.

Kevin Knight: Get Ridder as many reps as possible with the first-team group throughout training camp and preseason. Thankfully, they’ve already committed to it by making him the unquestioned starter. Outside of that, I’d like to see the team settle the starting five on the offensive line before the second preseason game. Let the top group get their reps together and get comfortable for more than a week or two before the season starts.

Otherwise, I think this offense will be set up well to help a young starter like Ridder thrive. We should see plenty of play-action, a generous helping of the run game, and some big, easy targets for Ridder to hit in Drake London, Kyle Pitts, Jonnu Smith, and Mack Hollins.

Which rookie, outside of Bijan Robinson, are you most intrigued to see how they develop during training camp?

Allen Strk: It’s impossible not to be intrigued by Clark Phillips III. After seeing numerous tall, lanky cornerbacks fail to pan out as starters in the league, organizations aren’t as fixated on size when evaluating cornerback prospects. They want players, not just athletes, who play with an aggressive edge, are capable of covering all types of receivers, and are playmakers ready to pounce on an errant pass. The former Ute checks all those boxes. Former Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman believes Phillips III will quickly earn a starting role with his capabilities.

There is plenty to be excited about when watching his tape. Falcons assistant head coach Jerry Gray praised his fearlessness in being able to play above his five-foot-nine stature. How he develops will be fascinating to observe, especially given how many big pass catchers are currently on the roster. There will be obstacles, but Phillips III possesses the skill set to emerge as a real difference-maker in a draft class filled with great potential.

Kevin Knight: It’s got to be Matthew Bergeron, as he’s the player with the best chance to win a starting job heading into Week 1. How quickly does he take to left guard, and once he does, can he prove himself as the better option to unseat Matt Hennessy?

Hennessy has steadily improved, so it’s not necessarily a huge indictment if Bergeron doesn’t start Week 1. As long as Atlanta gets a good player in there at left guard, everyone will be satisfied. Given Bergeron’s size and overall talent advantage, he should be considered the favorite.

Is there a projected starter or key rotational player you are monitoring closely and would like to see receive as many reps as possible in the preseason?

Allen Strk: Troy Andersen has been receiving some offseason buzz as a breakout candidate. While his measurables are impressive, and flash plays stood out in his rookie season, the 2022 second-round pick is still a work in progress. His inability to mentally process quickly enough, take good angles, and handle coverage responsibilities wasn’t all that surprising from a player who was considered a project coming into the league.

Considering him a breakout candidate when he needs to improve in numerous areas seems ill-advised. Missing eight tackles in 481 snaps per Pro Football Focus is another strong indicator of how much he needs to grow as a player. Despite his struggles, the coaching staff will count on Andersen to be a starter. They need to give him significant playing time in the preseason to get ready to be a true three-down linebacker.

Kevin Knight: Andersen is my pick as well. He’s the “wild card” on defense who could take the unit from “better but still meh” to “respectable” with his play alone. Andersen’s potential is through the roof, but the big question is if his instincts have caught up with his athletic gifts.

Playing next to a strong veteran like Kaden Elliss and in a scheme that I think will take better advantage of his size and skillset should only help his case. Andersen was known as an exceptionally hard worker in college. He played three different positions at Montana State (QB, RB, LB), which shows his versatility. He’s going to be a pleasant surprise this year.

Which positional battle is more compelling between left guard and right cornerback?

Allen Strk: As enticing of a prospect as Bergeron is, it wouldn’t be stunning to see him not start on opening day. Not every highly-regarded offensive lineman is ready to play at the start of their career. The cornerback position is filled with intriguing talent. As Kevin recently spoke about on the latest episode of the Dirty Birds and Brews podcast, there are plenty of possibilities and spots to be earned. Jeff Okudah shouldn’t be considered the default starter because of his status as a top-five pick and former starter.

That spot opposite A.J. Terrell is going to be very much in demand, as more man coverage will be applied this season. Players such as Mike Hughes, Darren Hall, Dee Alford, and Phillips III will provide plenty of competition. This has all the makings to be one of the most exciting training camp battles in recent memory. Bergeron competing with Matt Hennessey for the left guard starting role doesn’t hold the same value in determining the Falcons’ playoff fate in 2023.

Kevin Knight: I already talked about Bergeron, so I’ll focus on cornerback here. The second cornerback spot is Okudah’s job to lose. The battle in the slot is more intriguing to me. Alford appears to be the early favorite despite the addition of Hughes, and Phillips III will certainly be making his case to get on the field sooner rather than later.

It’s honestly a good problem to have, as both Hughes and Phillips have plenty of experience playing outside as well. It should be noted that Alford switched to #20 this offseason so that alone gives him a giant boost.